There are three distinct timelines for Accelerate, R.E.M.’s 14th full-length studio album: that of the band’s devoted fanbase, that of the band itself, and that of the music-buying (or downloading, as it were) populace at large.
For the fans, Accelerate began to form in their minds during the week of June 30, 2007, when R.E.M. performed a string of dates in Dublin, Ireland, billed as “live rehearsals”. Interspersed between renditions of golden oldies such as “Shaking Through”, “Letter Never Sent”, and “Kohoutek” — all more than 20 years old — were brand new compositions in various stages of the writing process. Some developed subtly over the course of the five nights. Some had their flaws, needs, and changes discussed on stage. At least one was debated as b-side material, but ultimately made it to the new record (“Man-Sized Wreath”), and a couple stood out as potential gems that did not (“Staring Down the Barrel of the Middle Distance” and “On the Fly”).
But almost as exciting and novel as what was dug up and unveiled that summer, were the songs that were excluded from the set. Think: no “Everybody Hurts”, no “Man on the Moon”, no “Losing My Religion”. For fans, it was clear that R.E.M. were deliberately hunting for some lost sense of the energy, freshness, even abandon, that seemed to cling to the band through almost two decades of its existence before dissolving into the mundane heap of blah that was 2004’s Around the Sun. And if new songs like “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” and “Horse to Water” seemed to look back at now-canonized “These Days” and “Little America”, it wasn’t to strip-mine their parts for “modern” reconfiguration, it was more to recapture those songs’ innate sense of purpose. Of course, the band still had plenty time to beat the new material into the ground in the studio, but a spark of hope and optimism still existed.
For R.E.M., bits and pieces of the album appear to have been floating around in their minds for some time. Michael Stipe had previously foreseen recent records as “primitive” and “howling”, though they became neither. A raging song called “Weatherman” appeared live in 2002 (never to resurface), and Accelerate’s “I’m Gonna DJ” made its debut during the Sun tour in 2004. But no matter how much the band or its often incendiary live sets spoke their desire otherwise, the in-studio R.E.M. was still hobbling around like the “three-legged dog” guitarist Peter Buck spoke of when drummer Bill Berry left the band in 1997. Though kitmen from Joey Waronker to Bill Rieflin served the band well on stage, on record even the occasionally inspired songs such as “Disappear” and “Boy in the Well” were hampered by arrangements, production, and performances that sapped the life out of them rhythmically and emotionally.
Now we know from the insight gleaned from the press leading up to Accelerate, the band knew it. Buck has long wished for the band to record and mix as quickly as it did in its youth, not to over-think or over-produce. And though Michael Stipe adamantly defends the songwriting on the last couple of records, he has admitted recently that the recordings were “sub-R.E.M.”, the result of a communication catastrophe. All of that appears to have been rectified on Accelerate, which, though it contains a few minor traces of the dreary self-importance found on “She Just Wants to Be” and “Final Straw”, is largely exuberant, fiery, rallying. Which leads us to…
The timeline that, at the time of this writing, remains to be played out is that of the great music-appreciating public. Does the convergence of die-hard fan excitement and the band’s (and label’s) efforts mean the return of R.E.M. to their post as one of the most respected rock bands of our time? Maybe. Should it? Probably. Does it even matter? Probably not, but the sheer existence of R.E.M. used to represent something unique within contemporary American rock music: a band possessing both longevity and artistic consistency. While the potential always existed for an R.E.M. record to be divisive, it seemed damn near impossible that they would ever become mediocre or irrelevant. The band promised to break up before that happened, and that commitment in the face of historical precedent of once-great now-dinosaurs, was itself inspiring. That legacy has been in jeopardy for some time, and it’s up in the air whether or not Accelerate will reclaim any lost prestige. But even if it doesn’t, it’s hard to imagine what more the band could have done to revive itself than this terse, exceptional set.
From the very first riff of “Living Well’s the Best Revenge” through the breathless rush of “I’m Gonna DJ” (only a 34-minute trip, making it the shortest R.E.M. record since 1984’s Reckoning), Accelerate demands attention to its every detail. Where recent albums pureed their instrumentation into cold soup, Jacknife Lee’s production here is characteristically strident and bold. All levels sound full-throttle, and what could have ended up overkill instead sounds appropriately matched to the strength and will supplied by the band.
“Living Well” inaugurates the album as a desperate rant against conservative politics and propaganda. Stipe rails hard in direct proportion to what has been an overwhelming eight years of frustration and grief, but with a conviction that betrays a crucial note of optimism, “Don’t turn your talking points on me / History will set me free / The future’s ours and you don’t even rate a footnote”. It’s the perfect opener for Accelerate, a mission statement that is serious-minded yet sounds like a bottle being uncorked. The chorus’s mini-climax of “Baby, I am calling you on that!” is a tremendous hook, as the whole band sounds at last united and playing off one another (including Bill Rieflin, finally unleashed and undeniable behind the drum kit). The rest of the quick and dirty album, though its songs are plenty varied, works much the same way.
“Living Well” is followed up by “Man-Sized Wreath”, which condenses the band’s earlier forays into glam-rock into an absolute diamond. Like the opener, it pairs Stipe’s cultural critiques with a dynamic musical backing, a rhythmic engine that should inspire as much physical as political action. “Turn on the TV and what do I see? / A pageantry of empty gestures all lined up for me / WOW!” he snarls on the opening line, as the band lurches underneath. His voice once again conveys a richer, more vast array of tones than it has in years, from pissed-off to bewildered, sassy to exhausted all in one line. As if to match, the song is full of halts, build-ups, and rhythmic shifts that break the song up without slowing it down. It ends with Mike Mills’s distinctive backing vocals brought up front and isolated in the mix for one last dry, pummeled note. Mills harmonies are all over Accelerate, and work wonders at restoring the sense of synergy missing since the band became a trio. The combination of Stipe’s increasingly graveled and knotted voice with Mills’s sweeter, more keening tenor has aged beautifully, making its recent absence from the studio all the more curious.
Though every review of Accelerate will surely feature some analogy between its title (taken from its sixth track) and its sound, the flow of the album doesn’t quite match that verb. Accelerate hits the ground running, slows down briefly, and ends as furiously as it began. Mapped out that way, its most striking moments end up being the bookends of the first and last two songs, particularly since the album is so short, but even the weakest moments in the middle detract little from the whole. “Until the Day Is Done” treads the same maudlin ground as Around the Sun’s “Final Straw”, though the song is recorded and performed beautifully enough to remain far more successful. Stipe reverts back to mopey proselytizing and soapboxing with lines like “The battle’s been lost / The war is not won” which pales in comparison to his more effective politicking elsewhere. When he sings, “The verdict is dire / The country’s in ruins”, I wince not because that perspective is implausible, it’s because I don’t believe he means it. I’m not convinced because the rest of Accelerate, the rest of R.E.M.’s whole canon of political song, is about claiming the personal power to act, and to endure. The shirtless skater-kid in the video for “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, for example, found plenty of worth and meaning in that tumble-down shack. For Stipe to put out there that the country is actually in ruins seems a bit of an overstatement. Surely it could be argued that some forces are actively ruining it, and Stipe points out which ones and how elsewhere throughout Accelerate with more nuance.
But singling out a line here or there is perhaps to quibble unnecessarily. “Until the Day Is Done” is far from R.E.M.’s best work, but it’s still lovely, earnest, and functions well to provide the album with the slightest breather. Its acoustic guitar and mandolin arrangement gives way to the fuzzy, bleating “Mr. Richards”, which in turn sets up “Sing for the Submarine”, a song like no other in the near 30-year history of the band. “Submarine” begins dangerously close to the plodding dirges of Around the Sun, but ends up a highly successful prog-rock tune that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Stephen Malkmus record. “Houston” barely cracks the two-minute mark but gets everything it needs to done, including an ominous overdriven bass-line groaning under punctuating organ. The last two songs, “Horse to Water” and “I’m Gonna DJ”, are some of the most furious and relentlessly aggressive songs the band has ever recorded. Almost every song feels like a highlight at some point, a testament to what must have been some ruthless separation of wheat from chaff.
It’s tempting to run down every moment here, even just to shout, “They’re back! Really, trust me!” But whatever happens as all the three aforementioned timelines converge with countless more personal ones is for the Fates. All I can say is, the band has done their part in creating not a perfect album, but a real, honest-to-goodness R.E.M. album worthy of the name. Stipe himself even seems to address the band’s recent struggles directly on “Hollow Man”. In the subterfuge-like tinkly piano opening to the song he sings, “I’ve been lost inside my head / … I took the prize last night for complicatedness / For saying things I didn’t mean and don’t believe / … I emptied out the room in 30 seconds flat / I can’t believe you held your ground.” I almost can’t believe it either, but I’m damn glad I did.